Monday, December 24, 2012

A Book Lovers' Advent Calendar: Christmas Eve

"And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, "Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger."

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will to men."

                                                                                                 -- Luke 2: 8-14

Happy Christmas, friends!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Elf on the Shelf can kiss my . . .

People, I hate that freaking Elf on a Shelf.  I know I am not alone in this because I have spent way too much time reading crap on the internet about the loathing other people feel for the phenomenon -- like this blog post, or this one, or even this newspaper article (which worries me because I think the author might not be entirely joking).  But none of these writers hits on the real reason why the Elf on the Shelf sucks.  They all wax philosophically about how we shouldn't lie to our kids, and how they don't like to promote the idea of tattling, and how it "diminishes parental authority."  And how it's creepy as shit.

Actually I'm with them there; it is creepy as shit.

But the real reason that every mom in the world should rise up in rage at the mere thought of the Elf on the Shelf is because WHAT THE HELL?!  Do I not have enough damned stuff to do?  Or to feel guilty about not doing?  The Elf on the Stinkin' Shelf is mean to moms.  I would say dads, too -- but we all know that moms are the Christmas beasts of burden.  Shopping, wrapping, decorating, begging someone to find our outside lights and put them up, baking superfluous sweets, making sure the teacher gifts are appropriate and clever, helping out with class parties or seasonal fundraisers and celebrations for school or church or scouts . . . .  I seriously spend most of my December hyperventilating because I am so very behind.  Y'all, it's December 23 and my tree is not decorated yet.

So do not even think about Elfing my Shelf, if you know what's good for you -- or I'll deck your halls.


Today behind the door of the Advent calendar, we find a fabulous new book that I suspect will become a classic.  It's beautiful, and full of love and mystery and Santa!  The Lost Christmas Gift presents itself as a package that the adult narrator receives after it has been missing for years.  The storytelling is multi-layered, as we read the letters that the narrator should have received from his dad when he was a boy, along with his father's drawings depicting their adventure.  We also read the adult narrator's musings about his memories of that adventure.  It's wonderful!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Day Twenty-Two: playing a little Advent catch-up . . . . .

Well. so once again my Advent has gotten away from me, and I am sorry.  So let me hurry and catch you up with the cool Advent books that I have been discovering this past week.


On December 18, the calendar door opened to show us The Nativity, with illustrations by Ruth Sanderson.  The text comes from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, but the lush pictures are so gorgeous!  This is a great way to share the true Christmas story!

Day 19 of the Advent calendar was a day when we were wishing for snow around here, with very little hope of getting any.  So that was a perfect day for Snowmen at Christmas.  This cute book shows us what snowmen do at night during the Christmas season -- while we are all asleep.  This is a holiday-themed sequel to Snowmen at Night, which may be a fun choice for families that do not celebrate Christmas, but who still wonder -- what do snowmen do at night??

December 20 arrived and so did Ten on the Sled, which is a terrific winter-themed counting book.  The illustrations are so funny as they show us exactly why it is not a good idea to put ten friends on one sled! 

The Advent calendar door opened on Day 21 and I was delighted to find A Bit of Applause for Mrs. Claus, because I've always thought she doesn't get enough credit.  To tell the truth, I kind of identify with Santa's wife, who keeps things running smoothly at the North Pole while Santa gets all the glory.

 Today, I want to share with you another of Tomie de Paola's wonderful Christmas stories.  He has written and illustrated so many that it would be hard to choose a favorite, but The Birds of Bethlehem is absolutely one to treasure.  In this tale, the birds of the little town gather for breakfast and discuss all of the unusual happenings:  so many visitors!  And a star shining brightly in the night sky; and angels singing to the shepherds.  What can it all mean?  This is a great read-aloud book!


Monday, December 17, 2012

Letters to Santa

A few weeks ago the sunny girl and I took a day trip (a l-o-n-g day trip) to New York City.  We took along her best friend, Teeny Tiny Taylor, and the three of us had a great day.  We saw a fabulous Broadway musical that none of us knew anything about -- The Mystery of Edwin Drood (in which Chita Rivera is still gettin' it done!).  Now it's one of our new favorite shows!

We ate lunch at an empanada stand -- spicy chicken for me, and gooey cheese for the two vegetarians -- plus a shockingly tasty cranberry apple empanada for dessert.

The hipsters rode the Ferris Wheel at Toys R Us, and were drawn like moths to the mesmerizing flame of the Disney Store. We went to the Discovery museum, where we saw a very cool exhibit of sets, props, and costumes from all eight Harry Potter movies  And:  Robert Pattinson?  Short.  Rupert Grint?  Not quite as short, but still.  Daniel Radcliffe?  Short, short, short.  Emma Watson? About the size of a miniature pixie.

And of course we hit Macy's. We strolled around the block outside the store first, looking at the pretty, pretty window displays.  Then we went inside and traveled  all the way up to the ninth floor.  Our mission was to ride the wooden escalators, and to find the Christmas shop!

As we made our way up and up and up, we discovered this letter writing station and made a stop, because Macy's is doing a cool thing:  Every time you mail a letter to Santa inside a Macy's store, the company will donate one dollar to the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

The urchins were all over that!

But listen to this tragic tale:  Teeny Tiny Taylor has never seen Miracle on 34th Street, so she didn't understand the special relationship Macy's has had for so long with Santa and with making sure his letters get to him.  How could this have happened in America?!  I can only tell you -- the sunny girl assigned the movie as homework!


Our Advent calendar reveals this fun book behind today's door.  Inside are actual letters that can be opened and read, as the Jolly Postman tells about all the different storybook characters who have written letters to Santa.  Kids will also enjoy the games and puzzles that are part of the story. 

Sunday, December 16, 2012

I choose hope.

I don't know who created this artwork, which has been traveling around on Facebook for the past couple of days.  But I totally affirm its message.  I do know that the world is full of good people.  I am lucky enough to feel surrounded by them every day.  So during times like these, I choose to look to the Light.  I choose hope.


And as we prepare for Christmas, that's the core of what we are all preparing for. So today I chose this beautiful book to share with you during our Advent -- our time of preparation. The First Christmas uses the Nativity stories from the Gospels according to St. Luke and St. Matthew as its text, drawing from the gorgeous language of the King James translation.  The artwork really helps you focus on the interplay of light and dark, with intricate silhouette designs and silvery inks.  It's a lovely book to read as we ready ourselves for the birth of the Light of the World.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

We Interrupt Your Regularly Scheduled Blog Post to Bring You...

Hello people of the Inter-webs; Sunny Girl here! Tonight, while I go and see The Hobbit and do math homework because that's the kind of hell-raising youth I am, the parental units will be out getting into the Yuletide Spirit with copious amounts of Yuletide spirits. So, my mom has been kind enough to let me step in and write her blog for her tonight.

I'm breaking the rules and choosing a repeat book because tonight it's my night and I want to I really feel like this story really embodies the Christmas spirit. A New Coat for Anna is about a young girl named Anna who needs a new coat for the winter, because she has outgrown her old one.

This proves to be more of a challenge than one would expect. See, Anna and her mother live in post-WWII Europe, and (like all of their neighbors) have no money to spare. So, over the course of a year, you follow the process of her mother bartering away all their valuable possessions and this village coming together to do this thing for a young girl.

What I love most about this book is that there are two different perspectives to read it from, and both end in the same heartwarming conclusion. As a young child it's just a really cool story about this girl and her mom doing a bunch of really cool things to get a coat. When you read it as a more mature person, it's kind of heartbreaking. Her mother is forced to barter off all their lovely heirlooms for this one basic thing she should, in any other circumstance, be able to get without a moment's hesitation. And the townspeople are forced to take her things, because it's very clear none of these people have any money after the war. Either way you read it, you end up with the same story -- a village coming together and overcoming hardship to make a little girl's life a little bit easier. And that's what I really love about this story. And that's what I really want all of you to take away this Advent season!

Friday, December 14, 2012

It's beginning to look a lot like . . . oh, who am I kidding?

Ask me if I'm ready for Christmas.  Go ahead -- I dare ya.

I do have a Merry Christmas wreath, but this is only because the fabulous neighbor sent her Boy Scout son over to sell me one; she knows me and figured this would be the only way I would get one.  She was right.

Meanwhile, the sunny girl's Halloween hat looks great, stashed in the corner of my dining room, right where a Nativity should go. 

The autumnal garden flag got put out just before Thanksgiving, so I feel like I haven't gotten a full season's work out of it.  At this rate the Christmas flag will go out the day after Valentine's Day.

Here we gaze across a vista of laundry that needs folding, to the mantel where our stockings should be hung.  By the chimney.  With care.  But first I have to find them.  And put away the Easter bunny.

Note the lack of a Christmas tree.  It's looking bleak, y'all.


Today,  the Advent calendar shows us a book that my family has loved forever.  The Cranberry books tell about the small town adventures of a group of friends who live in Cranberry, Maine.  In Cranberry Christmas, the friends are worried that they will not be able to ice skate on Christmas Day -- one of their favorite traditions.  Thank goodness, Mr. Whiskers finds an unexpected way!  When the urchins were little we had all the Cranberry books, plus Old Black Witch -- a favorite from my own childhood, also written by the Devlins.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

"Then my daughter's head caught fire . . . ."

December 13 is St. Lucy's Day, or the Feast of St. Lucia, if you want to get all formal about it.  A very cool tradition of St. Lucy's Day (most often observed in Scandinavian countries, or in families with a northern European heritage, or in families that have a daughter named Lucy!) is that the oldest daughter of the family brings a breakfast of coffee and St. Lucia buns to her parents; she traditionally dresses in a white gown and wears a wreath of candles on her head.  This would end in disaster in my house . . . .  The tradition allows the other daughters to help their older sister, but they carry a single candle. Here's a link to a recipe for the buns, which are quite tasty!

tangent: The buns have a figure eight shape, with raisins or currants placed in the centers of the circles; they're supposed to look  just the littlest bit like two eyes. This, of course, is to commemorate the legend that St. Lucia had her eyeballs plucked out (or maybe plucked them out herself?) because she wanted to keep her virginity and so refused to marry a wicked pagan suitor.  Love the creepy Christian martyr traditions . . . . Fa la la la la, la la la la!

So behind today's Advent calendar door, we find a book about St. Lucia herself.  The fun thing about this book is that it follows the story of a modern family that keeps the St. Lucy's Day customs, and at the same time it tells the story of the saint's life.  A two-fer!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

I'm drowning in twelves -- and I can't stop singing about it!

Well, I mean -- what kind of Advent book selection did you expect on the twelfth day of the twelfth month of the twelfth year?

You all know, of course, that the twelve days of Christmas are actually the days from December 25 to January 6, when the western church celebrates Epiphany or Three Kings Day.

But those freaking twelves have been calling to me all day.  

And just for fun and because I have done nothing to get ready for Christmas, where nothing equals not one damned thing -- and because I am getting just the teensiest little smidge of a bit angsty about it -- here is a festive little Merry Christmas song that the fabulous Woodbridge Singers used to wow 'em with.  This twenty-first century choir does a swell job, too:

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Book Lovers' Advent Calendar: Day Eleven

As Hanukkah progresses, I have found a fabulous collection of stories, written by Nobel Prize laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer.  There are eight sweet stories collected in The Power of Light -- one for each night of Hanukkah.  This is a great read-aloud collection!

Monday, December 10, 2012

Book Lovers' Advent Calendar: Day Ten

Today behind the door of our Advent calendar we find a short story by Damon Runyon -- "Dancing Dan's Christmas."  It is included in Guys and Dolls: The Short Stories of Damon Runyon -- which is, tragically, out of print.  A link to the text of the story can be found here.  Anyone who has loved Runyon's tales of Sky Masterson and Miss Sarah Brown, Nathan Detroit and Nicely-Nicely Jones, will get a kick out of this gasser of a story.

We meet Dancing Dan and his pals as they toast the season on Christmas Eve with quite a few "hot Tom and Jerrys" -- which sounds like a mistake, since a Tom and Jerry is a festive kind of egg-noggy concoction that has both rum and brandy, along with various spices.  I found a recipe here for the brave among you (I would include The Mother but I suspect she already knows how to make a mean Tom and Jerry).

Capers and shenanigans ensue, as they always do in a Runyon story, and the surprise ending is quite happy-making.  This would be a great read-aloud story, especially if you have someone in your family who can put on a fun Sopranos-esque gangter/hoodlum accent.

NOTE:  I don't know that small children will find this story as hilarious as teenagers and adults will.  But hey -- if you have a five-year-old who aspires to be a professional gambler, read this to her so she can be inspired.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Book Lovers' Advent Calendar: Day Nine


This book is a lushly illustrated poem version of a very old Christmas carol.  The Animals' Christmas Carol is based on the medieval song, "The Friendly Beasts" --
Jesus, our brother, kind and good,
Was humbly born in a stable rude --
And the friendly beasts around him stood, 
Jesus, our brother, kind and good.
Each of the stable animals reports a gift presented to the beloved Christ Child.  In her poem based on the carol, the author expands the traditional list of animals to include a lion and a peacock, among others:
"I," said the dog, all black and white,
"I brought the sheep down from the hill tonight,
So the shepherds might follow your shining light,
I," said the dog, all black and white.
 And the illustrations!  Heart-wrenchingly beautiful!

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Book Lovers' Advent Calendar: Day Eight

Well, so this book has always been in my family's basket of Christmas stories, even though to some its connection to the Advent and Christmas season might seem a little tenuous.  But bear with me!  The story of The Painter's Cat concerns Micio, the spoiled kitty who belongs to an Italian painter.  Micio is a little miffed when his owner ignores him in order to concentrate on a painting.  Micio decides to head out on his own, but soon realizes that he misses the life of an artist's cat.  When he returns home, he discovers that he has been given a prominent place in his owner's painting -- his owner must have missed him, too!

Our cat-loving family was tickled by this kitty's-eye view of the creation of a real Renaissance painting: Micio takes center stage in Lorenzo Lotto's The Annunciation.  And that's where the Advent part comes in; this painting depicts the moment when Mary is visited by the angel Gabriel, who tells her what God asks of her.
 Mary, do not be afraid; you have won God's favor.  Look!  You are to conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you must name him Jesus.  He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High.  The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David; he will rule over the House of Jacob for ever and his reign will have no end.  (Luke 1: 30-33)

See!  That's pretty Christmas-y! 

Our copy of this gorgeously illustrated storybook came from the sunny girl's godmother.  We have loved it ever since -- and every time we read it, we think of our dear Lou.  So that makes it double fabulous!

Friday, December 7, 2012

Book Lovers' Advent Calendar: Day Seven

I loved this story!  In Christmas Farm, Wilma decides to grow a new kind of garden, and with the help of her five-year-old neighbor, Parker, begins a Christmas tree farm.  We read along as, using string, shovels, and sixty-two dozen balsam seedlings, the two friends plant the beginnings of their farm.  As the trees grow over the next five years, so does Parker.  When both the trees and the boy are ten years old, it is finally time!  The trees are ready to be sold to families who want fresh and beautiful Christmas evergreens.  The illustrations are so detailed and serenely pretty -- any young one will have such fun exploring the pages as the story is read aloud, or poring over them alone to find new surprises on every page.

A great find -- I wish I had known about it when my urchins were younger!

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Book Lovers' Advent Calendar: The Feast of St. Nicholas

Today, on the Feast of St. Nicholas, what could be a better book to read with your family than J.R.R. Tolkien's Letters From Father Christmas?  Tolkien (yes -- that Tolkien) delivered these letters to his children on behalf of Father Christmas, every year from 1920 through 1943.
The hand-written letters came with North Pole stamps, and illustrations to accompany Father Christmas's descriptions of life at the North Pole.  In his letters, Father Christmas mentions other inhabitants of the North Pole, like the North Polar Bear (in 1926, Father Christmas complains that the Bear has eaten "quite a lot of my Christmas chocolates"), as well as helper elves and wicked goblins.  The intricate detail of the illustrations is just lovely, and the commentaries on the happenings of the world have a bittersweet flavor that is quite moving:  in 1939, for example, Father Christmas notes, "things are very difficult this year owing to this horrible war. Many of my messengers have never come back."  

This book makes me sigh with happiness, no lie. What a treasure these letters must have been to Tolkien's children!

HERE is a link to a slideshow of several of the illustrations.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Book Lovers' Advent Calendar: Day Five

Behind today's Advent calendar door we find a cute little wordless book.  The youngest readers can follow along as all sorts of woodlands creatures take a small child's sled for a nighttime adventure.  The watercolor illustrations are great -- and I love the expressions on the animals' faces!

Around here, you know we are saying, "Come on, Big Snow."  So this is a book that makes us all happy.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Flour, yeast, sugar, cinnamon, . . .dental floss?

So after the fact, I can tell you that the sunny girl and I sure did enjoy our bread baking adventure with the Girl Scouts.  And I can also tell you that you don't need to offer me any tasty rolls or slices of delicious pumpernickel bread.  I'm good.

The fabulous Girl Scouts embarked on their bread baking saga as the culmination of a "Journey," which is what the Girl Scouts call a merit badge.  Except it's not really a merit badge because the requirements are different, and the way you prove you've met the requirement is different, and the Girl Scouts keep changing the requirements, and keep changing the name of the stinking thing (it used to be called an "Interest Project," for example), and I really wish the Girl Scouts would stop being so defensive about not being Boy Scouts and just call the thing a merit badge, for God's sake.

But whatever.

The task at hand was this: each girl needed to bake two loaves of quick bread (the sunny girl made pumpkin bread and banana bread) and a loaf of traditional yeast bread.  The breads would all be donated to community groups in the area.

We make quick breads all the time at our house, so the sunny girl cranked this part of her day out pretty quickly (heh!).  But while she has watched her dad make yeast bread, she had never done it before -- so when her bread started to rise, she was delighted -- and a little startled. (Here, the Bat Mitzvah girl and her mom are kneading dough for a yeast bread.)

Actually, most of these girls were new to the baking process (we are raising a generation of slice and bake aficionados . . .), so throughout the day the girls would check on their dough, and we would hear squeals of surprise as they saw how big it had gotten.

The only frustration -- and these girls handled it pretty gracefully -- was that the kitchen we were using was not made for nine girls and their mothers to be using it at the same time.  As you may know, bread baking requires counter space to mix and knead, and then space in a warm spot to let your dough rise, not to mention oven space.  The timing of all of this requires some precision as well -- it was sad for some girls when their lovely loaves rose, only to fall again before they were able to pop them in the oven.  One more lesson about the baking process.

 The girls figured out how to work in shifts, and had meal responsibilities as well as dish duty to contend with, too.  When we were finally all done with all of our loaves (we started at 10:00 in the morning, and the last loaves came out of the oven at 9:45 that night), one of the rockin' mommies remarked to me, "I will never eat another slice of bread without really appreciating how much freaking effort went into making it!"

And here is a swell story in pictures -- a microcosm of our day:  Victoria and Tia Sally had never baked yeast bread before, but they bravely chose to make cinnamon rolls.  Check it out!

I missed seeing them roll out their dough and spread it with butter, sugar, and cinnamon.  Then they rolled it up into a log.  At this point Victoria was a little confused.  "How are we going to get rolls out of this hunk of dough?"  Silly Victoria!  Haven't you ever walked by Cinnabon in the mall?

Their list of ingredients included dental floss, which made all of us say, "What the heck?"  But we all (including Victoria and Sally) had a delighted aha! moment when we watched Victoria slice through the dough with the floss (you can see her hands in the background of this picture).

It's so cool -- the dental floss really did make a nice clean slice.  My Contractor noted that the technique is just like garrotting someone.  She reads a lot of murder mysteries.

The rolls looked beautiful  as Sally put them near the stove to rise.

But holy cow!  They really, really rose!  Victoria and Sally decided to divide them into two trays.

Fresh out of the oven . . .

. . . and here they are packaged for some lucky senior citizen.  How cool is that?!


This little rhyming book, Who Is Coming to Our House?, is a sweetly illustrated story of the animals' preparations for the guest who will soon arrive.  Mary and Joseph are on their way, and will soon need a place to sleep.  All the animals hurry to tidy their home for their special guests.